Saturday, October 31, 2015

Trick and Treat

It’s time to brew up a frighteningly fiendish puzzle and potion pairing. It is Halloween, after all.  It turns out that October 31 is also National “Knock-Knock” joke day, which calls to mind the classic Halloween gem: Knock knock … Who’s there? … Boo! … Boo who? … Oh, don’t cry!  It’s just me!  Hooo, give me a minute, that’s just too funny.  Hmmm, you’re groaning?  Excellent, groans are good on Halloween.  What’s that you say?  You want another?  Something specifically puzzle box related?  Well, sure, if you insist.  Knock knock… Who’s there?... Wooden Box Fan… Wooden Box Fan who?... Wooden Box Fan-tasia sound lovely right now?  Yes, but I much prefer the Brandenberg concertos.  Ba-dum!  

The Always Empty Box by Phil Tomlinson

If that awful joke didn't scare you off already, you may be a zombie.  On this All Hallows Eve, I present a puzzle box which is “all hollow”, or as its maker, Phil Tomlinson describes it, “always empty”.  Phil Tomlinson is a fine cabinet and puzzle box maker from Cincinnati Ohio, who created the “Always Empty” box out of Black Walnut, Curly Maple, Bloodwood, Rock Maple and Pawlownia woods.  The box has lovely inlaid arcs across the top, beautifully contrasting colors on the top (?) and bottom (?), and fine edge details.  It has a satiny polished finish which makes it a pleasure to handle.  The puzzle box has a surprising, unique first step movement to open it, and a couple more surprises in store after that as well.  There is nothing inside the box.  Nothing.  It’s … always empty.  It’s quite frightening, especially on Halloween.  But don’t shout – that’s a different box.

It's so full of beautiful details and fine finishes.  But somehow it leaves you feeling so ... empty

To calm your shaking nerves, and especially if you really are a zombie, I’ll make you the perfect drink.  This potent potion was intended to rejuvenate, reinvigorate and reconstitute the bedraggled bon vivant in Prohibition era London who might have had one too many the evening prior.   Harry Craddock was a cocktail pioneer who left the US and established himself as head bartender at the Savoy Hotel in London during American prohibition.  There he created the “Corpse Reviver #2”, which first appeared in print in his famous “Savoy Cocktail Book” published in 1930, and has since been widely felt to be the best of the “reviver” series.  The drink was intended as a “hair of the dog” remedy, and was best imbibed “before 11 am, or whenever steam and energy are needed,” as Craddock explains.   

The Corpse Reviver #2 by Harry Craddock

The combination of savory gin, Cointreau for a little sweetness, Lillet for a mild bitterness, lemon juice for its tart smack, and a dash of absinthe to pull it all together, make for a perfect cocktail.  The bitterness of Lillet, an aromatized wine aperitif from France, was originally imparted by quinine from cinchona bark (the flavor in tonic water and protector from malaria), back when it was known as “Kina Lillet”.  The recipe was changed in 1986 to the much milder “Lillet Blanc” available today.  The Italian aperitif Cocchi Americano, with its bolder quinine flavor, is now considered to be the closest modern substitute for the defunct Kina Lillet, and is often substituted to recreate the classics.  The Corpse Reviver #2 is a sophisticated sipper which will put the color back in your cheeks, or reanimate your misguided mad scientist grave digging adventure, Dr. Frankenstein.  Just beware of Harry Craddock’s famous warning: “Four of these taken in swift succession will quickly unrevive the corpse again.”  Happy haunting!

The glass is all full and the box is all empty ... a trick and a treat.  Happy Halloween!

For the Corpse Reviver #2 recipe:

Saturday, October 24, 2015

High-Brow Hybrids

Puzzle classification has been a puzzling endeavor over the centuries and I will not presume to generalize about it, but will merely quote James Dalgety and Edward Hordern, who defined it this way: "A puzzle is a problem having one or more specific objectives, contrived for the principle purpose of exercising one's ingenuity and/or patience.  A mechanical puzzle is a physical object comprising one or more parts which falls within the above definition."  Additionally, they define 14 separate puzzle classes.  All of the puzzle boxes and even the non-boxes which have been featured here fall into the category “Opening Puzzles (OPN)”.  But puzzles, like people (and blogs) are not always so easily defined, and quite often cross into multiple categories (like people, and blogs).  A beautiful hybrid puzzle, created by Kagen Sound (a man whose very name is a lovely hybrid), is the Cocobolo Maze Burr.  This stunning piece of puzzle art is made with cocobolo, ebony and holly woods, and is an evolved version of his award winning "Maze Burr" puzzle, which was the “puzzle of the year”, winning both the people’s choice and jury grand prize awards in the 2006 NobYoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.  

The Cocobolo Maze Burr by Kagen Sound

That original puzzle was a hybrid itself, functioning as a “burr” puzzle, which is a classic take apart puzzle design comprised of multiple pieces which form a “burr” three dimensional, usually symmetrical, shape.  The maze burr came apart into its multiple components of sticks and panels, but utilized a variable maze on each sliding panel, which could be reprogrammed to increase the complexity of the puzzle, from 7 all the way up to 116 moves.  John Rausch collaborated on the mathematical configuration of possible panel positions and moves.  The maze burr is therefore a sequential movement (maze) / burr hybrid.  Each side consists of two separate panels which shift at right angles to one another, with their motion restricted by a rune like maze carved into the uppermost panel and a peg attached to the lower panel.  As one panel shifts, it blocks or releases the motion of a different panel.  The cocobolo maze burr adds to the hybrid by turning the structure into an actual puzzle box, such that once it is opened, it does not come apart into the individual components but retains its structure as a functional box.  Inside are stored more maze plates which can be swapped to adjust the complexity of the puzzle.  The contrasting colors of the beautiful hardwoods and the pleasing fluid motion of the box as you slide the panels this way and that is a calming experience, enjoyable even if you are totally lost in the myriad movements and never open the box.  This puzzle combines the best of many styles into a masterpiece of form and function.  

The rune-like mazes on each outer panel can be configured to create up to 116 possible moves-to-open

To compliment this modern masterpiece we will craft another modern classic, which owes its origins to a few happy hybrids as well.  The combination of equus asinus and equus caballus is a launching point for this famous cocktail, in a way.  Not so coincidentally, October 26 is also “National Mule Day”.  The Moscow Mule dates to 1941 when two friends, John Martin, the new American owner of the Smirnoff vodka brand, and Jack Morgan, the owner and purveyor of “Cock n’ Bull” ginger beer, came up with a marketing ploy to boost flagging sales of their respective wares.  They dubbed it the “Moscow Mule” in reference to the Russian born vodka and the tart and spicy “kick” it packed from the lime and ginger beer.  They commissioned fancy copper mugs and photographed their creation all about town.  It became an instant hit with the LA Hollywood scene and revived the entire Smirnoff brand.  

The Gin-Gin Mule by Audrey Saunders

The Moscow Mule is a delicious drink, but I’m not a huge fan of vodka, and besides, we need another hybrid / variation before we’re finished.  Audrey Saunders, the famed mixologist behind SoHo’s Pegu Club in Manhattan, (and creator of the amazing "Old Cuban" cocktail) created another modern classic with her “Gin-Gin Mule”, which essentially substitutes gin for the vodka.  The Pegu Club was revolutionary when it opened in 2005, by simply using fresh and homemade ingredients in its classic cocktails.  You might say it helped put the “craft” in craft cocktails.  Imbibe magazine even named the Gin-Gin Mule one of the “25 most influential cocktails of the past century”.   And with its simple combination of gin, mint, lime juice, simple syrup and ginger beer, you shouldn't wait to craft one of these for yourself.  Cheers to these marvelous modern mashups.

A pair of happy high-brow hybrids

For more on puzzle classification:

For more about Kagen Sound:

For more about the Moscow Mule:

For the recipe to Audrey Saunder’s Gin-Gin Mule:

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Plethora of Pineapples

Sweet greetings to you all.  October 17 is National “Sweetest” Day and I think that’s as good an excuse as any to enjoy something indulgent.  Today’s puzzle box is therefore a sweet little treat created by master wood worker Perry McDaniel.  His “Pineapple Down Side Over Cake” is a marvel of modern machining and devious design.  

The Pineapple Down Side Over Cake by Perry McDaniel

Perry McDaniel has created many beautiful puzzles over the past 20 years, some of which he has designed with the dovetail loving Sandfield brothers and some as his own unique designs.  He is lately known for his series of “baked goods” which have included puzzle boxes disguised as slices of cake or pie which look good enough to eat.  Over the past few years he produced a set of puzzle box “petit fours”.  Each is a small offering made from colorful exotic woods to look like a lovely little pastry, with tiny details such as a colorful stripe and a dainty flower on top.  It’s difficult to imagine how such a small item hides much complexity as a puzzle box, but Perry is a master and has created a set of wonderfully satisfying puzzles.  With tiny precision he has added multiple steps, false moves / dead ends, and unexpected movements into these little confections.  The Pineapple Cake is no exception.  It makes you want to take small bites and savor each one as you make you way to its sugary center.

Numbered and signed by the master craftsman

We take a little literary turn now as we craft a cocktail pairing for this pineapple petit four.  Cocktails abound in books and book lore, from authors who are well known for their signature drink to the characters they create with similar proclivities.  Puzzle boxes on the other hand are fairly scarce in literature, although they make an important appearance in Anthony Doerr’s amazing novel, "All the Light We Cannot See”, which I highly recommend.  One of Charles Dickens' memorable characters from The Pickwick Papers is the Reverend Stiggins, who has a fondness for pineapple rum.  Pineapple rum was a common consumption in the 1800s, and dates back to the late 1700’s when distillers would soak pineapples into barrels of rum to sweeten it up.  The cocktail historian David Wondrich, who has researched, refined and resurrected numerous spirits (in this case literally and figuratively) from days long gone, has teamed up with the makers of fine cognacs and other spirits, Maison Ferrand, to recreate this old style of pineapple rum, which is not overly sweet but imparts delicious hints of the fruit.  

The Pineapple Express with Plantation Pineapple "Stiggin's Fancy" Rum -  a cocktail fit for Charles Dickens himself 

In homage to the raucous reverend, they have named it “Plantation Pineapple Rum, Stiggin’s Fancy 1824 Recipe” and bottled it with a retro cool label which recalls the best and worst of times.  The Pineapple Express cocktail, created by Freddie Sarkis from the Broken Shaker in Chicago, is a simple daiquiri (how could I resist?) which utilizes this special pineapple rum in a perfect way that lets you appreciate its subtle and unique flavor.  So treat yourself to something really special on the sweetest day, whether its puzzles, pineapples, potions, or simply the pleasure of your progeny, partner, and people in your life.

A Pleasing Pair of Pineapples - Cheers!

For more about Perry McDaniel:

For more about Stiggin’s Fancy Pineapple Rum:

For the Pineapple Express cocktail recipe by Freddie Sarkis:

Saturday, October 10, 2015

On Top

One of the most ambitious collaborative puzzle box projects in recent times was The Apothecary Box, a puzzle chest created by Robert Yarger (aka “Stickman”) which itself holds 12 individual puzzle boxes created by prominent designers from around the world.   Eric Fuller, the brilliant wood worker from North Carolina whose Havana Cigar Boxes #2 and #3 have been featured here previously, contributed one of those individual puzzles, which he named the “Topless Box”.

The Topless Box by Eric Fuller

October 13th is “National No Bra Day” in the US.  Of course, Eric did not create the Topless Box with “No Bra Day” in mind, but perhaps he would not mind having it help raise breast cancer awareness now, which is the true purpose of the day.  Eric has been known to go shirtless on occasion.    The Topless Box is a truly incredible puzzle.  It is a beautifully crafted cube made from striped quartersawn sapele, quilted maple, and paduak woods.  The pale maple shimmers on each end with a lovely luster.  Some initial experimentation reveals that these ends can be removed, exposing a stunning red paduak layer underneath.  The name of the box gives some hint as to how things might be working here, but it is a huge challenge to solve.  The mechanism is pure elegance and very unusual.  This puzzle is extremely satisfying, and seems like a perfect component for the larger collaboration.

How can you come out on top with a topless box?

In his description of the puzzle, Eric points out that a box with no top will, by definition, also have no bottom.  Which brings us to the “Naked and Famous”, a cocktail by 2012's Best American Bartender of the Year while at Death and Company, a legendary, landmark bar in New York City.  The founders at “Death & Co.” describe their name as originating from the fall out after the Volstead act in 1919, commonly known as “prohibition”.  During those dark days, to drink alcohol was to dwell with death and his companions.  Created by mixologist Joaquin Simo, the Naked and Famous pays homage to the classic Last Word cocktail (mentioned previously here) and the Paper Plane, a modern cocktail, with a unique mixture of mezcal, Aperol, yellow Chartreuse and lime juice.  Simo comments that the drink is "the bastard child born out of an illicit Oaxacan love affair" from these two cocktails - oooh.  

The Naked and Famous cocktail by Joaquin Simo

This combination balances perfectly to create a completely new, richly satisfying drink.  It’s also a vibrant reddish orange color which matches nicely with the paduak wood on the Topless Box.  The color is mostly due to the Aperol, Campari’s lighter, more approachable sister aperitif.  Aperol has bright, grapefruit and herbal flavors which are lovely on their own with sparkling water and shine in cocktails like the Naked and Famous.  So whether you are going bra less, topless, or naked, if it’s for a good cause, cheers to that.

Topless or Naked? Cheers!

For more on breast cancer:

For an excellent breast cancer foundation:

For more on Eric Fuller:

For the Naked and Famous cocktail recipe:

For more about Joaquin Simo:

For the incredible Death & Co. cocktail Book:

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Taste of Texas

If you have been following along with boxes and booze you will no doubt be aware of my love for Japanese puzzle boxes, both new and old in design.  The original Japanese secret box (himitsu-bako) was invented over 100 years ago in the Hakone mountain region of Japan.  New “traditional” type himitsu-bako are still being produced today using the classic techniques of puzzle box making and wood inlay work known as yosegi and zougan.  Modern puzzle box makers have paid homage to these techniques with new classics, which add their own unique spin on the traditional designs.  I’m very fortunate to live near one of the best American puzzle makers to have done so in recent years.  Kathleen Malcolmson now resides in Houston, Texas, the home of Boxes and Booze as well.  A few years ago she produced a series of beautiful Japanese style puzzle boxes with a twist in her workshop in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside Cotopaxi, Colorado, where she used to reside.  

The Sliding Panel Puzzle Box #2 (aka 16 Move Puzzle Box) by Kathleen Malcolmson

Her “Sliding Panel Puzzle Box #2” is a lovely box made with lacewood and primavera which provide contrasting light and dark waves as they undulate across the surface in a stunning pattern.  The box is also known as the “16 Move Puzzle Box”, since, you guessed it, there are sixteen moves required to open it.  The twisting pattern of wood inlay is not only beautiful but hints that there is also a “twist” going on here. You will need to turn the box in the right ways along with the more traditional moves if you want to open it.  This is due to the clever use of a metal pin inside the panels which blocks and locks your progress as you go.  It’s worth the effort of working out the exact moves required, though, because the inside of the box is just as beautiful as the outside, with the wave pattern of wood mirrored internally.

The inside is just as beautiful as the outside

Kathleen has also teamed up with puzzle designer Robert Sandfield over the years to design and create limited edition wooden take-apart puzzles.  Robert is known for his devious dovetail designs, which at first glance appear to be impossible to separate.  Robert also lives in Houston, so to toast my puzzling neighbors I have crafted a cocktail which dovetails nicely with his favorite design detail and Kathleen’s picturesque puzzle box. The “Puzzle Box Sour” cocktail incorporates elements of two other cocktails, the “Dove Tail” and the “New York Sour”.  The Dove Tail, a modern cocktail which originates from Bradstreet Craftshouse in Minneapolis, combines Grand Marnier, grapefruit, lemon and orange bitters.  The New York Sour is a classic cocktail dating back to the later 1800’s.  It is a fancier version of the whiskey sour, a drink whose virtues I have extolled on a number of occasions before.  The New York Sour, which was invented in Chicago, of course, adds a vibrant layer of red wine over the top of the drink, resulting in a gorgeous light and dark layered effect.  It reminds me of a certain puzzle box.  

The Puzzle Box Sour cocktail, with a cache of puzzle exchange offerings in the background

The Puzzle Box Sour cocktail takes elements from each of these drinks and adds a little taste of Texas to boot, in the form of Texas Rio Star grapefruits.  These grapefruits are a stunning, vibrant ruby red in color and offer the most delicious flavor of any grapefruit I have ever tried.  They are a true state treasure.  The "prototype" cocktail we created at Robert Sandfield's home also used Garrison Brothers, an award winning Texas bourbon, but it's flavors are too unique and overpower the balance of the drink.  I recommend using a milder mixing bourbon, such as Buffalo Trace or W. L. Weller instead.  The only twisting you'll need for this puzzle lies in tilting the glass to your lips, and you’ll find the solution with each sip.  As for how many moves it will take to get to bottom of this “Puzzle”, I would recommend you take a studied approach. Cheers!

A pair of pretty Puzzle Boxes

The Puzzle Box Sour Cocktail:

2 oz bourbon (a milder bourbon will work best)
1 oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz fresh ruby red grapefruit juice
½ oz simple syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
½ oz red wine float

Shake the bourbon, juices, simple syrup and bitters together with ice.  Strain into a glass and float the wine on top by pouring it gently over the back of a spoon held against the inside of the glass. 

For more information on Kathleen Malcolmson: